It would be a dream come true for any Phillies fan: free season tickets — in good seats — from the Phillies organization itself.
Seymour “Sy” Kurland, who died on Nov. 23 at 88, was a devoted Phillies fan, and had a family of diehards at home when he got the tickets in the mail.
“We were so excited, all of us,” recalled his wife, Shirley. “And he said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sending the tickets back.’”
Kurland, who was serving then as city solicitor under Mayor W. Wilson Goode, didn’t feel it was ethical to accept freebies.
“That was the first time anybody every did that, the Phillies management said,” Shirley Kurland, 80, remembered. “They couldn’t believe it.”
While his family members lamented the loss of the tickets then, today they remember the story fondly. His family said it explains who Kurland was, personally and professionally: a man of high ethical standards. In this regard, he was an inspiration not only to his children, who all went into public service, but to countless attorneys and legal professionals, too.
But he was far from a humorless scold. A vibrant raconteur who drew people to him at a party, he was fond of telling Jewish jokes that his children heard so many times, they often just said the punchlines. Married to his beloved wife for 65 years, he told her every day that she was more beautiful than she was on the day they got married.
A Philadelphia native, Kurland graduated from Temple University in 1954 and from law school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957. He went to work at Wolf Block, where he quickly distinguished himself, authoring a petition that was accepted by the Supreme Court while he was still a young associate. He became a partner and then chair of the litigation department, where, his family said, he revolutionized antitrust law and helped write Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which pertains to class actions.
In 1987, Kurland became chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, where he was also a member of the board of governors. Current Bar Association Chancellor Mary F. Platt released a statement about Kurland after his death.
“Seymour ‘Sy’ Kurland was a cherished and respected mentor and friend to many attorneys who looked to him for practical advice and guidance,” she wrote. “His sense of adventure and good humor inspired scores of lawyers to enjoy the practice of law and focus on serving the needs of their clients.”
In 1998, he was asked to become city solicitor, a position that meant leaving his well-paying law firm job.
“I was 17 and asked why he was doing it,” said his son Dan Kurland, an attorney himself. “And he said he wanted to give back to the city he was brought up in.”
Giving back was a theme that ran throughout his life. In addition to his legal activities — he founded and chaired the University of Pennsylvania Law School American Inn of Court, was president of the Historical Society for the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and was a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers — he volunteered for Jewish Family and Children’s Services for more than 50 years, serving as president of the board of directors.
“He encouraged us to give back,” said his daughter Amy Kurland, who is Philadelphia’s inspector general. “He felt that it was our obligation to give back to the community because we were very fortunate and we should make sure that other people had similar opportunities.”
“Whenever I do volunteer work for anything,” said daughter Laura Ferenci, who lives in Minneapolis, “they ask for the reason you’re doing this and I always say, ‘Because my father instilled in us that we needed to give back.’ He never cared what kind of profession we did, as long as we were happy and making a difference in the world.”
It’s no surprise that all three of his living children (son Frederick died in 2010) are in public service, guided by his inspiration.
Their father also served as a spiritual guide, they said. While he was not interested in organized religion per se, he was a scholar of religious traditions, constantly reading about divergent practices.
“He took a part of every religion and shared it with us,” Ferenci said. “He was always learning.”
It was an interest that dovetailed with his greatest passion outside of his family: nature.
“He loved nature,” Shirley Kurland said. “He hiked on Sundays and carried a little book and wrote spiritual things in the book as he was walking. Every fall we went on a hiking trip in Switzerland with a group and it was just his favorite thing. He was just in seventh heaven.”
He shared his love of the natural world with his family members. Whenever one of his grandchildren graduated from high school, he and his wife would give them the gift of an Outward Bound program.
“He always said to them, ‘If you don’t want to go, you don’t get a gift,’” Shirley Kurland said. “They would always say it was the best experience of their life.”
His family said engaging with ideas and nature went along with his overarching theory of life: Just show up.
“It’s all about the business of being alive,” he wrote before his death. “The real decision is to live … what is important is that you put one foot in front of the other and get on with the business of living. If you let yourself be alive, you have it.”
Kurland finished his career as a partner at Dechert LLP. In retirement, he served as a special master for the Chester Housing Authority.
He is survived by Dan, Amy, Laura and Shirley, as well as two siblings and nine grandchildren.
[email protected]; 215-832-0747